Storytelling Tips from Babylon 5: Ending an Epic

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I don’t know if there are hard and fast “rules” for writing the conclusion to an epic story. And I have no personal experience in doing so myself, since at the time of this writing, I’m still in the first draft stage of book two of a trilogy.

I have ended individual stories before, and I know that can be challenging. Beginning an epic is sometimes easy by comparison to ending a long tale, but it can be done well. Here are a couple of elements that I’ve observed in well-concluded epics.

Tying up loose ends

This is the most important element to ending most any kind of story, in my opinion – unless the point of your tale is to leave readers with more questions than answers.

Because of its length, and its multiple sub-plots and side threads, an epic’s conclusion can often be relatively long. In Lord of the Rings, several “endings” were gone through before the actual conclusion of Frodo leaving for the Grey Havens and Sam returning to his family.

Similarly, Babylon 5 had several moments when the series could have ended: the ending of the Shadow War in “Into the Fire,” the liberation of Earth in “Endgame,” or the thoughtful, time-spanning fourth season finale “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars.” But there was still more story to tell, and many questions still open.

Yes, even after the series’ conclusion, some details went unanswered. What was Lennier’s ultimate fate? What happened to David Sheridan and the Keeper that Londo left for him? Whatever happened to Lyta? But despite these small hanging details, all of the plot lines were brought to a close – all of the sub-plots, and the main plot of war encroaching on peace.

A sense of conclusion is important for an epic, I believe. Even if there’s room for more story, the main plot has reached an end and the goal has been accomplished. In Babylon 5, the wars are won, and a new era of peace has been ushered in. The tale of war, for now, is over.

Saying Goodbye

This is another important element in concluding an epic fantasy tale. Epics frequently feature a large cast of characters, many of whom are thrust together for the duration of the plot. By the end, some characters may be dead, and all of them have been changed.

It may be appropriate for the story for the characters to return to their lives that were interrupted by the main plot (such as happens in the Lord of the Rings). Or it may be that the characters need to move on to new lives, now that the adventures of the main plot have changed them (this is the case in Babylon 5).

Some characters part on friendly, tearful terms, excited about their new lives – like Sheridan and Delenn’s goodbyes to Garibaldi and Lochley. Other characters part with less joy and hope, because of who they have become during the course of the story: Lennier’s parting with Sheridan and Delenn, or Lyta’s parting with the entire cast.

Spending some time with partings and goodbyes is important for the reader, too, not just for the characters or for the sake of plot. In an epic tale, the reader (or viewer) has spent countless hours and hundreds of pages falling in love with the characters and their world. Goodbyes within the story give the audience a chance to say goodbye, to find closure and contentment in knowing the final path of the favorite characters.

The final fifth season episode of Babylon 5 – “Objects at Rest” – is all about partings and goodbyes, as the characters leave the Babylon 5 space station that had been their home and the crux of the plot. The series finale “Sleeping in Light” – which takes place twenty years after the plot of the series – is the ultimate of goodbyes.

At the end of Lord of the Rings, both the characters and the reader experience the conclusion of a final farewell as the main protagonist Frodo says goodbye to the other characters and to the main world of the story. Likewise, Babylon 5 ends with the main protagonist Sheridan saying goodbye to the other characters, the world of the story, and the audience. Both are bittersweet, but quite conclusive endings.

Never underestimate the power of a well-presented farewell to wrap up an epic story. What is one of your favorite epics and how did it end?

“Every part of this station has somebody’s fingerprints on it, layers and layers of people’s lives. There were times I thought none of us would get out alive. Some of us didn’t. But we did everything we said we were going to do, and nobody can take that away from us.” – Zack Allen, “Sleeping in Light”

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Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Good versus Evil

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Good and Evil

It’s a struggle truly as old as time itself, and therefore the basis and framework for our stories – fantasy and otherwise. The Good versus Evil battle can range from great wars that span kingdoms or galaxies to the inward personal struggle of morals versus one’s darker nature.

Like most fantasy epics, Babylon 5 covers both. As the character of Delenn notes: “The war is never completely won. There are always new battles to be fought against the darkness. Only the names change.”

War in Macro – Epic Battles

Fans of fantasy and science-fiction expect a few good fights scenes. And the more long and epic the story, the more opportunities for battles. While not a requirement for fantasy in the broadest sense, the “epic” storytelling style usually involves numerous plot threads, places, and characters – all of which provide the fodder for large-scale battles.

Battles usually increase as the epic story moves towards the climax. Babylon 5 features more than a few large dramatic space battles as the Army of Light fights the Shadows (note the archetypal names for the two sides of the war, making it clear – at least at first – who is Good and who is Evil).

If you’re writing a book trilogy or series, this increase in tensions between Good and Evil applies to each individual book as well as the over-arcing storyline. In Babylon 5, each season was like a novel, with the episodes as the chapters. Each season (or “book”) had its own plot and set of conflicts, but all were part of the overall plot of the series: war encroaching on peace.

War in Micro – Internal Conflict

While less flashy than space battles or sword fights, the internal battle of an individual character can be just as important for the story. A well-rounded character – even the most perfect of good guys – should have darkness or imperfections lurking deep within. This is not only realistic, it provides another sort of tension and conflict for the story.

The character of Londo Mollari is one of the main protagonists of Babylon 5 – but calling him one of the Good Guys might be a stretch. He is one of the most conflicted characters of the story, one who is constantly at war within himself. The Good in him wants to serve and protect his people, but the Evil in him drives him to make dangerous choices and hurt many people. Though the Good in Londo causes him to feel tremendous guilt about his actions, ultimately the Evil triumphs and leaves him a broken man with a wake of destruction behind him.

In contrast, G’Kar starts out violent and filled with hate, giving free reign to every Evil aspect of his nature. But during the story, he grows as a character and begins to listen to the Good within him; in the end, he finds personal peace and overcomes the internal conflict. These two characters of Londo and G’Kar are almost reflections of one another, or opposite sides of a coin. Their personal stories within the larger story are every bit the archetype of Good versus Evil.

Good vs Evil – Sometimes it’s Gray

In real life, Good and Evil aren’t always so black and white. And even in an archetypal Good versus Evil fantasy tale, having that gray in-between area brings depth and realism to the story. In Babylon 5, there is never any doubt that the Shadows are the bad guys – they’re bent on war and destruction, and nothing will change their minds.

But even the evil Shadows have a reason for their actions – and it’s guided by their belief that they are right. Right and Good are not necessarily the same thing, especially in a story, but this brings a humanizing element to the bad guys.

Similarly, the Vorlons – touted for the first three seasons as being the good guys and creatures of light – turn out not be as pure and Good as everyone thought. The battle is still about Good versus Evil throughout Babylon 5’s story. But the lines often blur into gray and the characters struggle to decide who or what they are fighting, and why.

“War encroaching on peace” – the main overall plot of Babylon 5 – does not have to be the main plot of your epic fantasy tale. But the Good, the Evil, and the Gray in between should be present; explore that tension in the macro and the micro, and you have the foundation for a tale of epic proportions.

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last best hope for victory.” -Susan Ivanova, third season intro

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Main Plot versus Sub-Plot

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Plot is essential for any story, and most stories feature sub-plots or side threads that run along with the main plot. This is especially true of epics, as this format is defined by its length and complexity.

There are no hard and fast rules about how many sub-plots a story should have, how long each one lasts, etc. But in general, what I have found is that the best way to handle sub-plots is to: a) make sure they relate to the main plot in some way, and b) make sure they don’t detract from the main plot.

Main Plot

When you sit down to write a story, you should have at least some idea of what your main plot is going to be. Even if you’re a pantser, and you have to write two-thirds of the book to discover your main plot, that’s okay – when it’s all over, there’s still one main plot.

The main plot of Babylon 5 is war encroaching on peace. The very first episode begins with an assassination attempt and a surprise attack. Even as the series winds down in “Objects at Rest” – the last episode before the finale – there is conflict. War is the main plot of Babylon 5’s epic story.

The main plot should be introduced fairly early on. Even in an epic story, where things can be expected to take longer to develop, the main plot should be apparent within the first few scenes. You don’t have to begin with a bang the way Babylon 5 does, but if you’re a third of the way into your tale and are still in intro mode, some revising might be in order.

Sub-Plot

Most every story has a sub-plot or a semi-related side plot. Epic fantasy – because of the length and the conventions of the genre – is a great place to explore multiple plot threads. Babylon 5, being a five-book series, after a fashion (each season was like a complete book, with the episodes as chapters), was filled with sub-plots.

Each season (or “book”) had its own plot. Season 2 – called The Coming of Shadows – focused on the approach of war, with its rumors and threats and darkening mystery. And by season 5 – The Wheel of Fire – two wars had been fought and won, yet the struggle for peace and unity proved to be a war of a different sort. All of these individual plots fall under the series’ main plot of war.

And of course, within each season’s sub-plots were smaller plots: the Mars rebellion, Byron’s telepaths, the madness of the Centauri emperor Cartagia, Dr. Franklin’s struggle with addiction, and on and on.

The key here is that all of these sub-plots are related to and are influenced by the season (or book’s) main story, and the overall series story. It is also important to note that a sub-plot – even an important one – should never completely take over the story. If you’re writing and you discover that your sub-plot is becoming the main plot, there’s nothing wrong with that as part of the writing and discovering process. Just make sure that you eventually figure out what your main plot actually is – even if it turns out to be that storyline formerly known as the sub-plot.

Side Threads

A side thread, as I call it, is smaller and less important than a sub-plot, but it’s an element that adds richness and dimension to the fantasy world of a long epic. Babylon 5’s story is rich with side threads: Garibaldi and Lennier building the old-fashioned motorcycle, Sheridan and Delenn’s multiple dinner dates and adventures with eating flarn, Rebo and Zootie’s periodic visits to the station, and so many more.

The scene involving Sheridan’s less-than-perfect attempt to cook flarn for Delenn had nothing to do with the main plot of the episode, the season, or even the entire series. The Shadow War coming to a head – the main plot of season three Point of No Return – could have been told without Delenn politely choking down Sheridan’s cooking. But that little side thread added another layer to those two characters, and provided a moment of humor in a high-tension story.

Think of side threads as a form of world-building and character development. The little things are the foundations of life – in reality and in fantasy. You can help your readers (or viewers) buy into your world and your story by adding in those little side threads.

What are some of your favorite main plots, sub-plots, or side threads in stories?

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: World-Building

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

I wrote a two-part post some time ago about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi. Like any good epic, Babylon 5 has a complex fantasy world to build—so here are some more tips for building the world for fantasy.

1.       Don’t build the world all at once. Introduce information at a natural pace.

In other words, avoid an info dump. If you’re writing something long and epic, there is plenty of time to introduce important information. Even with a shorter work, no reader wants to spend pages of exposition reading a textbook entry about your amazing fantasy world.

Babylon 5 begins with a bare-bones intro to the world. The audience learns that the setting is a space station in the future. Through action and dialogue, the main characters are introduced, and the main alien races of the series all make a brief appearance. Emphasis on brief. The story—and the setting—begins in the middle of the action (see the post about how to begin an epic.)

During this five-year-long epic, the world is developed, personal back-stories are revealed, alien cultures, languages, and technologies are explored. In real life you don’t learn all about a person or a place or a new situation in thirty seconds, so don’t make your audience try to learn this way, either.

2.       The little details can enrich the world and make things more believable.

As you’re building your world at a natural pace, and putting in the big points, don’t neglect the small, easily-overlooked details.

For example, in Babylon 5 it is vastly important to the plot and the environment of the fantasy world that humans and Minbari used to be at war. This fact is introduced right away to set the tone of cultural tension and shaky peace. However, it’s the little details that are tossed in throughout the series that shape the Minbari into something much more than just “the aliens who used to be at war with Earth.”

Details add flavor, like adding spices to food. Details like Minbari beds being at a forty-five degree angle instead of flat, or a throw-away line by a supporting character about a Minbari city that is carved entirely out of crystal.

How about other world-building details? Like the detail about cities on the Drazi homeworld having streets too narrow for any vehicle to travel on. And Narns are apparently marsupials (or something similar), because they refer to their children as “pouchlings.” And the colonists on Mars have their own baseball team, which competes in a futuristic World Series.

Are any of these details vital to the overall plot (or even supporting plot threads?) No. But they add depth and character to the fantasy setting. Just like real life, the best things are often found in the minutia.

3.       Be consistent!

This is the most important thing. All of the good pacing, character development, enticing details, and general creativity falls flat if you’re not consistent.

No writer is perfect, and the longer the story, the more details there are to keep track of. Even in Babylon 5, there are a few inconsistencies—like the slight changes in some of the alien make-up during the early episodes.

But overall, the world of Babylon 5 is consistent, and that is part of what makes the story so engaging. If a character dies, they are not forgotten about two episodes later. Each alien race has a distinctive and unique look to their space ships, so the audience always knows who is who in a space battle. The Narn language is written from right to left, and every time G’Kar is seen with a pen in hand (which is frequent, since the character is a writer), he is making his notes from right to left. Even the Minbari’s slanted beds make the periodic appearance right up until the very end of the show.

What are some other world-building do’s or don’ts that you have seen in your favorite fantasy or sci-fi epic? Comments are welcome!

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Foreshadowing

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

Foreshadowing can be used in any sort of story—not just epic fantasy or sci-fi. Foreshadowing means to show or suggest something in advance, to leave hints and clues for something coming later. Here are three aspects of foreshadowing that are used in Babylon 5, and that can be used in a saga or series that you may be writing, too.

1.       Foreshadowing can be subtle and easily forgotten.

In a long saga or a series, foreshadowing can be taken to an extreme—something mentioned on page three may not prove important for another 800 pages. While this can be exciting for the reader, if they catch or remember that detail, the foreshadowing can easily be lost if too much time passes.

In the first season of Babylon 5, a Centauri seeress comes to the station. She gives several prophecies, including a prediction that the space station will be destroyed in fire. When the station doesn’t blow up immediately, everyone relaxes and scoffs at her prediction. The character never appears again, her prediction is not mentioned again, and the whole thing is quickly forgotten by the audience and the characters.

Until the final episode of the series. The story of the last episode takes place twenty years later, and Babylon 5 is destroyed in fire—but not in the way that everyone expected years before when the moment was foreshadowed.

2.       Foreshadowing can be emphasized by repetition.

An example of repetitive foreshadowing is the telepathic character Lyta Alexander. Periodically during the course of the series, references are made to the fact that Lyta is a P5 telepath, meaning she ranks with just average strength and skill. This emphasis on her “average” ranking foreshadows the ending of the series, when Lyta has changed into a telepath stronger than a P12 (the highest ranking of strength and skill).

It’s important to note with this repetition technique, it still must be subtle. Characters comment on Lyta’s “average” P5 ranking only a handful of times—both before and after her powers start to change and increase. This is just enough to remind the audience that Lyta is either a) normal at the time, or b) ceasing to be normal. It serves to get the audience’s curiosity up about Lyta without making her the focal point of every episode and without beating the audience senseless with obvious clues.

3.       Foreshadowing is not the same thing as prophecy.

Destinies, prophecies, visions, and time-travel are often staples of sci-fi and fantasy. And while these story elements can be used with foreshadowing, it is not the same thing always. My first example did involve a character giving a prophetic vision; however, it served as effective foreshadowing because neither the character nor the vision appeared to be important at the time.

If the main plot of your epic fantasy is about an old wizard who tells a vision to the young farm boy and says that the gods have chosen him to be king and it’s his destiny, that’s not foreshadowing. In that example, prophecy and destiny are the plot, not a clue or hint leading to one specific element of the plot.

In Babylon 5, the storyline involving the Babylon 4 space station relied heavily on not only time-travel, but prophecy and destiny, as well. Both Captain Sheridan and Delenn are told by the alien Zathras that they have great destinies, and Commander Sinclair’s great destiny (which had been foreshadowed earlier in the series) is revealed. But that storyline is not foreshadowing, because destiny, prophecy, and time-travel is the plot.

Foreshadowing can sometimes be tricky, especially in a long tale. Hopefully these guidelines can help you if you’re wanting to utilize the technique. Read some of your favorite stories over again, paying attention to the little details that turn up later.

What are some other good stories that use foreshadowing without it being either too subtle or too obvious?

“The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us; we know only that it is always born in pain.”
-G’Kar, “Z’Ha’Dum”

Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: Character Development – the Power of Two

This is part of a series about storytelling techniques for epic fantasy. I’m drawing my examples from the 1990s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5. If you’ve never seen it, that shouldn’t affect the validity or usefulness of my storytelling tips. If you do want to see the show, you can probably find it on Netflix or the DVDs on eBay.

The plot of Babylon 5 was told over five television seasons and a few TV movies. Never mind the ‘90s hair and CGI that’s outdated by today’s standards. The story itself was a sprawling epic fantasy with a space-opera setting, a story that spanned thousands of years and dozens of characters. J. Michael Straczynski was the mastermind behind this dramatic tale of humans and aliens, ancient prophecies and futuristic empires, villains and heroes.

All the Characters

Babylon 5, like any good epic, has a huge cast of characters. Minor characters add spice and realism to scenes, and the supporting and main cast take turns in the spotlight as plot threads weave in and out. But even in an epic saga with a large cast, there are usually just one or two main protagonists. This is the character who has the most to lose, for whom the stakes of the story matter the most.

In Babylon 5, the two main protagonists are John Sheridan and Delenn. Coming in a close second, as the two main supporting protagonists, if I could use the term that way, are Londo Mollari and G’Kar.

These two pairs of characters exert the most affect on the overall story of the series. And just as they drive the plot, the twists of the story affect their lives more drastically than the other characters.

No character (at least, in most epics) functions in a vacuum—at some point the protagonist must interact with other characters. And this interaction fuels character development. I paired these four main characters of Babylon 5 this way because they drive the plot, and are affected by the plot, together.

Main Characters

Sheridan and Delenn’s power as a character duo comes from their love. Not only are they the main romantic lead in the story, but they have a great love for the people that they lead. Together they spearhead the war against the bad guys, and together they build a new alliance dedicated to peace. And they have to figure out how to overcome cultural differences and haunted pasts in order to have a successful marriage and raise a baby while doing all of this.

Londo and G’Kar’s power as a character duo comes from their hate. At the start of the series, these two represent the epitome of blind racial hatred. The shaky peace treaty between their two races is one of the subplots. And a force that drives the main plot is Londo and G’Kar trying to figure out how to work together for the good of entire galaxy without killing each other. Through the overcoming of their hatred towards one another they grow as characters.

Put your protagonists in a tight spot, raise the stakes, use another character to test their limits. Give your protagonist someone to love, someone to hate, something they want to do. Not every character development technique (these, or any others) has to be used, but if you’re writing a long saga, there’s plenty of time to introduce new pressures to further grow your protagonist. Sheridan and Delenn’s romance grows over the course of three seasons. And Londo and G’Kar, though eventually calling each other ‘friend,’ never do stop trying to kill one another.

Whether your epic is action-oriented or paced a little slower, whether you have a cast of hundreds or just one obvious hero, remember that other characters, not just the plot, can be the catalyst for character development.

“I am grey. I stand between the candle and the star. We are grey. We stand between the darkness and the light.” -Delenn, “Babylon Squared”